Aaron Mallett is a hurdler, not a hurtler.
There’s been a purpose in every speedy stride since he took up his sport at age 14, fixated on becoming an NCAA champion.
The finish line is in sight for the Iowa junior, who enters this weekend’s NCAA West regional in Lawrence, Kan., seeded third in the 110-meter hurdles and expecting to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish at the outdoor nationals.
“My freshman and sophomore years, I was getting used to college, competing against all these great athletes,” Mallett said. “You’ve got to find your inner mojo and know that you’re just as good as anyone else.”
Mallett is a three-time all-American and a two-time Big Ten Conference champion in his event. He set a school record by finishing in 13.40 seconds at last year’s nationals in Eugene, Ore.
He is satisfied with none of that.
This year, coach Joey Woody decided to pull Mallett out of competition in the 400-meter hurdles so that he could concentrate on adding speed at the shorter distance. Mallett has responded, clocking a season-best 13.48 two weeks ago at the Big Ten championships, an indication that he is peaking at the right moment.
It’s no surprise to Woody, a former star hurdler who claimed the NCAA 400-meter title in 1997 while competing at Northern Iowa. Woody remembers trekking to St. Louis to watch Mallett go through an impromptu winter workout with his track club in a basement. He saw a natural leader, someone not only concentrating on his own improvement but actively helping the other kids get better as well.
Woody also saw a young athlete who was unusually focused on his goals. Mallett loves to study video clips of hurdling greats such as Aries Merritt and David Oliver, straining to find something in their technique that will give him an edge.
“Some athletes, they just kind of show up for practice, and then after practice is over they go about their business. Even when I was recruiting him in high school, his buddies were having fun and going out and he’s staying home and watching Olympic hurdlers on video, trying to get better,” Woody said. “There’s not a lot of athletes that are willing to put that kind of time and effort into those little things.”
Mallett was just as impressed with Woody, appreciating that he took the time to visit him at home and watch him go through a workout. Looking forward to learning from a three-time member of the U.S. world team, Mallett chose Iowa over Syracuse and Purdue,
But he still watches video whenever he can, aided by the Hawkeyes’ Hudl account, which allows him to pore over his races juxtaposed with those of the all-time greats.
“I compare myself with the best to be the best,” Mallett said. “I can teach myself how to fix something that I did wrong. That’s something that a lot of people don’t take the time to do.
“I can find the little things, me dragging my foot or not stabbing through the hurdle.”
What he’s discovered is that his strength is as a closer, but that he needs to work on getting off to more explosive starts.
“From the starting standpoint, I’m just not as powerful as a lot of hurdlers. Once I get up to speed, I think I’m one of the best,” Mallett said. “I know a lot of guys that would get out on me to Hurdle 2, and that’s when I would kick it into gear.”
He will be keeping a close eye on Devon Allen of Oregon, a friend who also may be Mallett’s biggest competition for a national title.
“You’ve always got a target on someone’s back, whether it’s yourself or someone else’s,” Mallett said. “If he gets out on me, which he tends to do, I need to stay focused on my lane. I know my strengths are as being a closer. You can’t stress too much about it.”
Mallett is one of 25 Hawkeyes who are competing Thursday through Saturday in Lawrence, all aiming to reach the nationals in Eugene two weeks later. For Mallett, his stay in Eugene may extend through the U.S. Olympic Trials July 1-10. He has already met the qualifying standard of 13.52.
He knows he would be a longshot for an Olympic berth at age 21. But that doesn’t mean he’s holding his dreams in check and waiting for the 2020 Games.
“I know my body will be prepared to go, and my head space will be right,” Mallett said.
Woody said the training plan for Mallett was prepared with July in mind. He thinks Mallett can shave another two-tenths of a second off of his personal-best time.
“While we’re running fast, let’s take advantage of it and see what we can do,” Woody said. “I’ve seen crazier things happen.”